I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe. Brian Kelly committed the most reprehensible sin a coach can make. He prioritized practice productivity ahead of safety, which led to the death of a 20-year-old kid. With little emotion and reading from a script, Kelly admitted his sin at a televised news conference following a game his team lost solely because he took an unneeded gamble.
And there is virtually no national outrage.
We expect far more integrity and honor from a married, celebrity golfer than we do from an alleged molder of men at one of our most prestigious academic and athletic institutions. Or maybe adultery with a string of bimbos is worse than the gross negligence that killed Declan Sullivan.
America’s moral decay couldn’t be any more obvious.
In the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa, Kelly faced the media for the first time since a scissor lift blew over in high winds during a Notre Dame practice, taking the life of Sullivan, a videographer.
Kelly opened with a long, rambling statement that — to my eyes and ears — revealed his disconnect from common sense and his lack of a real connection with the young man who lost his life in pursuit of Notre Dame’s bid for football relevancy.
There was no grief, remorse, passion or anything in Kelly’s voice as he talked about Declan Sullivan and the events that led to his demise. Kelly mights as well have been talking about field position.
Much was made of Kelly’s acknowledgement that he was responsible for the Irish practicing outdoors on Wednesday in the windy conditions.
There was nothing risky or dangerous about practicing during strong wind gusts. The danger was in having a human being raised 50 feet in the air on a scissor lift to film the practice. I wanted to hear Kelly take full responsibility for that negligent action. I wanted to hear Kelly express sorrow for playing any role in that negligent decision. That would’ve taken courage and character.
What we heard instead was nonsense — football nonsense.
“I made the decision that we could have a productive and safe practice outdoors,” Kelly said. “Productive because the conditions were such, although windy, were not unlike many days that I had practiced at other universities, including here at the University of Notre Dame. Productive practice is important obviously within our offense, as well. Throwing the football, you have to be able to look at the weather conditions and find out whether you believe it’s going to be a productive day first. We believed it to be productive. It was productive, obviously up until the tragedy.
“The next thing that is important is that it’s a safe session, that the practice must be safe.”
Kelly has no idea he has the whole thing backwards. He is in charge of kids. Safety trumps all other priorities, including productivity. Safety is not “the next thing.” It’s the only thing. Football is a dangerous game by nature. Physical risks are built into the game for everyone involved. Adults are put in charge of “games” first and foremost to oversee safety concerns.
Kelly failed. Notre Dame failed. Collectively, those of us in the media are failing.
We’re reluctant to hold Kelly accountable for his error. We want a video coordinator to blame. We want some nameless, faceless person we’ll never interview to scapegoat for a tragedy that happened on the practice field Kelly controls.
If you have a layman’s understanding of college football culture, you know Kelly is ultimately responsible for every decision that transpires on the practice field.
My friend and former Ball State football teammate, David Haugh, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, minimized Kelly’s negligence as a “mental lapse.” ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski compared Sullivan’s preventable death to cancer and a heart attack.
I live in an alternate universe. In my world, what has transpired at Notre Dame in the past week would spark around-the-clock discussion/debate and the kind of visceral outrage we witnessed when the media learned Tiger Woods liked what the rest of us like — strippers, waitresses, porn stars and party girls.
We’re talking about negligence that led to the death of a child. No one seems to care.
It was not a mental lapse. Brian Kelly is a high-stakes gambler. You could see it on Saturday. His team was a chip-shot field goal from victory in the final seconds and Kelly foolishly instructed his quarterback to throw a pass. Tulsa intercepted it and stole the game. Kelly defended his decision and said he’d do the same thing again. Playing aggressively trumped doing what was prudent to win the game.
Kelly won’t learn without consequences.
As a society, we can’t let the institutions and the people who represent those institutions become more important than the people. Notre Dame claims to answer to a higher calling. Millionaire college football coaches preach about accountability to their players.
Brian Kelly gets a pass after he told us — more than once — that practice productivity was more important than safety, after he explained the death of a child he claimed to know without a hint of emotion?